Bending the Arc of History

Posted: May 14, 2019 in History, Idle Nonsense, Industrial Collapse
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I started reading Yuval Harari’s book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017). Had expected to read Sapiens (2014) first but its follow-up came into my possession instead. My familiarity with Harari’s theses and arguments stem from his gadfly presence on YouTube being interviewed or giving speeches promoting his books. He’s a compelling yet confounding thinker, and his distinctive voice in my mind’s ear lent to my reading the quality of an audiobook. I’ve only read the introductory chapter (“A New Human Agenda”) so far, the main argument being this:

We have managed to bring famine, plague and war under control thanks largely to our phenomenal economic growth, which provides us with abundant food, medicine, energy and raw materials. Yet this same growth destabilises the ecological equilibrium of the planet in myriad ways, which we have only begun to explore … Despite all the talk of pollution, global warming and climate change, most countries have yet to make any serious economic or political sacrifices to improve the situation … In the twenty-first century, we shall have to do better if we are to avoid catastrophe. [p. 20]

“Do better”? Harari’s bland understatement of the catastrophic implications of our historical moment is risible. Yet as a consequence of having (at least temporarily) brought three major historical pestilences (no direct mention of the fabled Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) under administrative, managerial, and technical control (I leave that contention unchallenged), Harari states rather over-confidently — forcefully even — that humankind is now turning its attention and ambitions toward different problems, namely, mortality (the fourth of the Four Horsemen and one of the defining features of the human condition), misery, and divinity.

Harari provides statistical support for his thesis (mere measurement offered as indisputable evidence — shades of Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now), none of which I’m in a position to refute. However, his contextualization, interpretation, and extrapolation of trends purportedly demonstrating how humans will further bend the arc of history strike me as absurd. Harari also misses the two true catalyzing factors underlying growth and trends that have caused history to go vertical: (1) a fossil-fuel energy binge of roughly two and one-half centuries that peaked more than a decade ago and (2) improved information and material flows and processing that enabled managerial and bureaucratic functions to transcend time and space or at least lessen their constraints on human activity dramatically. James Beniger addresses information flow and processing in his book The Control Revolution (1989). Many, many others have provided in-depth analyses of energy uses (or inputs) because, contrary to the familiar song lyric, it’s energy that makes the world go round. No one besides Harari (to my knowledge but I’m confident some lamebrained economist agrees with Harari) leaps to the unwarranted conclusion that economic growth is the principal forcing factor of the last 2–3 centuries.

I’ve taken issue with Harari before (here and here) and will not repeat those arguments. My impression of Homo Deus, now that I’ve got 70 pages under my belt, is that Harari wants to have it both ways: vaguely optimistic (even inspirational and/or aspirational) regarding future technological developments (after all, who doesn’t want the marvels and wonders we’ve been ceaselessly teased and promised?) yet precautionary because those very developments will produce disruptive and unforeseeable side effects (black swans) we can’t possibly yet imagine. To his credit, Harari’s caveats regarding unintended consequences are plain and direct. For instance, one of the main warnings is that the way we treat nonhuman species is the best model for how we humans will in turn be treated when superhumans or strong AI appear, which Harari believes is inevitable so long as we keep tinkering. Harari also indicates that he’s not advocating for any of these anticipated developments but is merely mapping them as likely outcomes of human restlessness and continued technological progress.

Harari’s disclaimers do not convince me; his writing is decidedly Transhumanist in character. In the limited portion I’ve read, Harari comes across far more like “golly, gee willikers” at human cleverness and potential than as someone seeking to slam on the brakes before we innovate ourselves out of relevance or existence. In fact, by focusing on mortality, misery, and divinity as future projects, Harari gets to indulge in making highly controversial (and fatuous) predictions regarding one set of transformations that can happen only if the far more dire and immediate threats of runaway global warming and nonlinear climate change don’t first lead to the collapse of industrial civilization and near-term extinction of humans alongside most other species. My expectation is that this second outcome is far more likely than anything contemplated by Harari in his book.

Update: Climate chaos has produced the wettest winter, spring, and summer on record, which shows no indication of abating. A significant percentage of croplands in flooded regions around the globe is unplanted, and those that are planted are stunted and imperiled. Harari’s confidence that we had that famine problem licked is being sorely tested.

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